When you arrive at The Shack on Coalter Street in Staunton, please do not expect it to be something else.
It is a shack.
It sits somehow level on a hilly street, its numerous layers of paint no doubt cutting in on its already scant square footage. Mismatched light fixtures illuminate mismatched chairs, and no one is fooled by that bright red rug — it does not hide the haggard concrete floor.
What you see is what you get at The Shack, with no coy pretenses or disguises.
Take the artwork: real, actual photos of the chef’s (Ian) wife’s (Leslie) grandmother’s (Tissy) family. These faded, haphazardly hung, mostly out-of-focus runes of memory will carry you to a previous reality: one of corded phones and Corning cornflower coffee percolators and hideous plaid pants I think everyone my age was forced to wear at some point. Grandmother Tissy’s home in Swope, Virginia, was nicknamed “the shack,” and this modern iteration reflects all that is real and true about her life and her Southern and Appalachian cooking.
What you see on the menu, and on your plate, is what you get, too — no hidden chemical warfare or unpronounceable ingredients that’ll blow holes in your coronary artery or cause a processed-food hangover the next day. Despite the size of the building (room for roughly 26, not including the patio space), the menu is by no means skimpy or lacking variety. And it changes frequently, sometimes day to day, depending on the availability of local ingredients and what’s naturally in season, which Chef Boden makes a point of integrating into the eclectic menu. Brandy and I ordered four items (two starters and two main dishes) and shared everything. First up: Creamed Ramps on Toast with lardo and a fried egg. Ramps are a variety of wild onion/wild leek that have an oniony and garlicky flavor and are used widely in Appalachian cooking. Such a simple recipe… but all the ingredients were so fresh that the flavors shouted on full blast.
For our second appetizer, we didn’t know what to choose, so we asked them to bring us the prettiest one, lol. Out came the Salmon Gravlox with barbecue beets, benne seeds, goat’s milk yogurt, mandarinquat, trout roe, and dill. It was definitely pretty, as you can see, but the taste! Those flavors! The dill contrasting with the mandarinquat, the creaminess of the yogurt with the tender salmon! And the barbecue beets — what the heck? The beets are smoked and then dehydrated and chopped into little bits. Sort of a beet jerky. Sooooo good.
For main dishes, we had to try the burger, topped with cheddar, schmaltz roasted onions, bacon, and black garlic mayo. The Shack gets its beef from a co-op, and this particular grass-fed, black angus beef came from Monrovia Farm in Westmoreland County. The Shack cuts and grinds all its meat on the premises. Our burger arrived in a rectangular metal tray next to a giant heap of fries and it was gone in a flash.
The other entree we chose was the Monkfish Schnitzel with soft boiled egg, arugula, mandarinquat, and lime pickle aioli. Honestly, this was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. Firm texture but not tough. Perfect ratio of breading to fish. Crispy without being greasy or dry. And that freaking lime pickle aioil — I want it on everything now.
At this point we were thanking our lucky stars we were wearing things that were high waisted or just shapeless. No room for dessert, unfortunately, but that Apple Sorghum Bourbon Fry Pie with thyme custard was damn tempting.
To give you an idea of the variety available at The Shack, the rest of the menu included Fried Mortadella Sandwiches, Country Pork Cracklin’, Chestnut Spaghetti, Squid Ink Rigatoni, Southern Fried Quail, Wild Blue Channel Catfish, and several other items. They offer 30 (!) varieties of wine and cider, including the Ferreira Late Bottled Vintage Porto that was DELISH, and five beers from Full Steam, Alewerks, Champion, and Port City. All in that teeny tiny shack and that tight space of a kitchen.
On your way out, you can snag some candy, stored in old Cafe Du Monde coffee cans, a Shack tee shirt, or a sticker. Chef Boden also sells two varieties of homemade southern-cuisine inspired Sorghum sauces. The Sorghum BBQ sauce is a mustard-based sauce with a kick, and the Sorghum Hot Sauce will heat up whatever you’re eating with serrano and ghost peppers! You can order these online, too, and soon, Black Sheep Coffee in downtown Harrisonburg now sells both of these sauces!
So, here’s your to-do list.
1. Get out your planner and choose a date to go to The Shack.
2. Visit their web site to make a reservation. You can also call them.
3. Put on some loose-fitting clothes and go stuff your face.
4. Bring some sauce home with you!
The Shack is open Wednesday through Saturday 5 – 9pm and Sunday 10:30 – 2.
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